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US Announces Rice Trip to Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will follow-up President Bush's policy speech on Iraq Wednesday with a trip to the Middle East, the Gulf region and Europe. Officials say she'll explore possibilities for reviving an Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue on a week-long mission beginning Friday. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Aides to the secretary are saying in advance they don't expect the trip to produce any breakthroughs.

But they say Rice will try to exploit what is seen as an opening for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, while also seeking support among Arab moderates for the new Iraq strategy to be announced by the president in his address Wednesday night.

Middle East peace efforts have been stalled for a year by the deadlock between Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas of the mainstream Fatah movement, and the militant Islamic group Hamas which controls the Palestinian government and has spurned international terms for peace-making with Israel.

However, U.S. officials point to some positive signs including a Gaza cease-fire and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meetings in the last two weeks with Mr. Abbas and with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says there is little the United States can do about the ongoing split among Palestinians except to try to help the forces of moderation. "In terms of the tensions between Hamas and Fatah, those are quite clear, and at the root of those are really unresolved political contradictions that the Palestinians themselves need to come to terms with and resolve through their political process. So that is something that they need to do. For our part, we are working with President Abbas and the presidency on ways to help strengthen those institutions that support peaceful resolution of differences between Israelis and the Palestinians," he said.

The Bush administration has said it is seeking congressional support for as much as $100 million, mostly for salaries and training, to strengthen Palestinian security forces under the control of Mr. Abbas.

To begin her trip, Rice is expected to meet Prime Minister Olmert in Jerusalem and with Mr. Abbas at his headquarters in nearby Ramallah.

She later goes on to Egypt and Jordan, and then to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where the Iraq conflict is likely to dominate the conversations.

The Rice itinerary released here does not include a stop in Iraq, though she has visited Baghdad on past trips to the region, flying in unannounced for security reasons.

The trip will end late next week with consultations with officials in Berlin and London.

Rice is due to return to Europe the following week for a January 25 funding-raising conference in Paris for Lebanese reconstruction following last year's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.